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Bajrang Punia’s Asian Games medal is a survivor’s gold

Life was always about survival for Bajrang Punia, from enduring poverty in childhood to breaking into the elite bracket of wrestling.

Written by Vinay Siwach | New Delhi |
Updated: August 20, 2018 8:45:19 am
bajrang punia Wrestler Bajrang Punia was clinical in surmounting Takatani Daichi of Japan 11-8 to win gold in the men’s 65 kg freestyle category. (PTI Photo)

There was a time in his early life when Bajrang knew exactly what will be on his plate when he came home. “There were days in my childhood when I would return from practice and eat the same food for dinner. It was surviving on milk and roti. I wanted to change that. Wrestling was an escape from that life,” Bajrang had said before leaving for Indonesia.

It explains his determination and dominance in Jakarta. Winning medals is important for the 24-year-old from Khuddan village in Jhajjar. It was evident in the manner in which he won all his bouts leading up to the gold medal match on technical superiority. And when he was confronted by a comeback from Japan’s Takatani Daichi, he kept his composure and raised his game to carve out an 11-8 victory in the 65kg category.

He came into the Games after winning three tournaments – Commonwealth Games, Tbilisi Grand Prix and Yasar Dogu International – which made him the favourite in his category. The Asian Games gold medal will now make him a national icon.

READ | Watching top wrestling on his smartphone, gold medallist Bajrang Punia gets smarter

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It is a far cry from his struggling days when he welcomed his stint at Delhi’s Chhatrasal Stadium as a means of escaping a hard life. “When I was at Chhatrsasal, I was happy to be away from the family. But when I began winning, I was happy I could help my family. They made me what I am today and are still doing it,” Bajrang, who has now shifted his family to Sonipat, says.

He has been wrestling since he was eight and having survived poverty and hunger, Bajrang’s desire to win has only intensified. After wrestling at his village akhada with elder brother Harinder, he came to Chhatrasal.

Chhatrasal Stadium, at that time, was the hub of Indian wrestling. On an average, 80 per cent of grapplers in any Indian team from 2000 till 2015 came from there. Bajrang is also a product of the stadium. After his cadet-level wins, he was still competing at the junior level when the most significant moment in his career arrived. “Sushil and Yogeshwar were Olympic medallists by then. I was competing at the Budapest Senior Worlds. Yogeshwar had lost and I thought I will not win a medal here. But I won a bronze medal when I was 19. It changed my life. But I did not realise that it won’t be that easy for me in the coming years,” he says.

Even before his success in Indonesia, Bajrang was a cult hero in Haryana. (Source: PTI)

The family is still a big part of Bajrang’s success. Every day his brother travels to Bhalgarh to give him food, fruits and other daily necessities. But as far as wrestling is concerned, his guru is Yogeshwar. After leaving Chhatrasal in 2014, they shifted base to the Haryana Police Academy in Karnal and are now at Yogeshwar’s academy in Gohana.

“Yogeshwar failed to medal at Rio but he had already told me that I should take over from him in the 65kg category. Now I am preparing to win an Olympic medal. In the lead-up to the Tokyo Games, I have to play all other tournaments,” he says.

Even before his success in Indonesia, Bajrang was a cult hero in Haryana, a fact that is evident from an anecdote from two weeks before the Asian Games. Bajrang had to attend a political rally in Kaithal, along with other Commonwealth Games medallists. But after two hours, the crowd went of control and a bored Bajrang left with his friends. Before heading home, he went to a small village outside Kaithal to inaugurate a wrestling academy.

READ | Bajrang Punia’s Turkish connection in Asian Games gold

Bajrang was surprised at the amount of respect he got in the village. The sarpanch, coaches, children all gathered around him. The sarpanch even invited them to his house and offered sweets and dry fruits. He couldn’t eat sweets for obvious reasons. But his frustration from the rally disappeared.

Isliye kushti karni hai. There was a lot of respect in the rally as well. I was sitting on the stage and people were clicking selfies. But there was no love. I was so frustrated there and my head was aching. But the love and respect I got from this small village and the people was selfless. I didn’t even know them. You wrestle for all this. I don’t need the money at every function, but these small moments which will go unnoticed are the ones that make me happy,” he says.

After adding an Asiad gold to his medal tally, Bajrang will no doubt have opportunities to create more such happy memories.

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